Buddhist Ethics

A central doctrine of the Buddha’s Dhamma is kamma, the idea that each intentional thought, word and deed has a corresponding effect. Some explanations of kamma give the impression that it is a sort of force in the universe, unconnected to and outside the individual. This is not correct. The Buddha says: “I say that intention (cetana) is kamma, for having intended ones thinks, speaks or acts.” [1] The mind is such that negative intentional acts have a negative effect and positive acts have a positive one. By positive is meant positive feelings (peace, joy, ease, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, etc) and negative means negative feelings (regret, anxiety, anger, defensiveness, shame, worried brooding, etc). Such notions as if you slap someone’s face you will be reborn with a an ugly red face, or if you swear you will have halitosis in your next life, are ridiculous although widely believed misunderstandings. Kamma is a psychological phenomena and its effects are psychological too.

The idea that kammic effects always manifest in the next life is also wrong. Most intentional acts probably have their result immediately, or soon after, or at least in the present life. Another misunderstanding about kamma is that it concerns reward and retribution. Kamma no more does this than a task “rewards” you with a sense of satisfaction when you have done it well, or a hot pot “punished” by burning your hand when you pick it up of the stove. Kamma is simply about psychological causes and their effects.

So what is meant by positive and negative? Positive, good or skillful (kusala) is the quality of being ethically helpful, skilful and conducive to enlightenment, while negative, bad or unskilful (akusala) is the opposite of this. Together with kammic consequences, Buddhism uses three principles to determine the ethical value of any behaviour. (1) The instrumental principle is the idea that something is skilful if it assists in the attaining of a particular goal and unskilful if it does not. Therefore, anything that is conducive to Buddhism’s primary or secondary goals can be said to be good. (2) The consequential principle is the idea that we can determine the value of an act by the consequences it has. Stealing, for example, leads to inconvenience, anger and increased suspicion in the victim. It reinforces greed and lack of restraint in the thief (if not caught) and may end in punishment (if caught). All this is negative and, therefore, stealing is wrong. (3) The universalization principle is the idea that we can determine the value of something by knowing how we feel about it and then applying that to others. I would like someone to help me when I am in trouble, I can infer that others feel the same, and therefore, when I see someone in trouble I try to help them. In Christianity this concept is called the Golden Rule.

From the Buddhist perspective therefore, it is an unsafe generalization to say that homosexuality per se is immoral or wrong. To posit something meaningful about it would require a familiarization with the motives underlining it, the behaviours involved, their effects, and so on, and this would differ from one individual to another.

Many homosexuals are involved in what is sometimes dubbed “gay culture” – a preoccupation with sex, promiscuity, drugs and alcohol, etc. which Buddhism would see as counterproductive to the goals of the Dhamma. Probably just as many avoid such behaviours and in all respects other than their same-sex attraction are no different from other ordinary individuals. A significant number are in relationships marked by love, faithfulness and mutual sharing. Buddhism would see such a lifestyle as conducive to Dhamma whether amongst homosexuals or heterosexuals. To paraphrase a comment recently made by a well-known Buddhist teacher – it is not whether you are homosexual but what kind of homosexual you are.


  1. Anguttara Nikaya III, 415 [back]